Originally published in The San Francisco Gate
One way to respond in a crisis is to reduce its threat. The other way is to add to the threat. The coronavirus COVID-19 might be the first collective crisis that many people have faced, and it poses an uncertain future in every country that confronts it. But this doesn’t change the two choices just mentioned. Know that your individual actions will have an impact on countless other people.
No matter how the COVID-19 pandemic resolves itself—something no one can predict—you can personally choose right now to reduce its threat. If you consciously make that choice, three positive things will happen. You will feel more in control; you will be on the side of healing, and you will add to the meaning of your life.
How to be more in control
This begins by acting responsibly, following what the experts in disease control advise. By now everyone is aware of the need to stay at home, self-quarantine if you show any symptoms, keep 6 to 10 ft. away from other people in public, don’t take long plane flights, and wash your hands frequently (the medical school routine for scrubbing up applies here: Wash your hands vigorously while singing “Happy birthday to you” twice—and don’t forget your thumbs and between your fingers). The active ingredient in effective hand sanitizers is isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, which you can also use by itself in at least a 60% solution with water.
This is all useful advice, but it doesn’t address where being in control comes from, which is mental. Positive thinking isn’t enough. Feeling safe and secure is a state of awareness. It exists in us when we reach deeper than the everyday self. The everyday self cannot feel permanently safe. Outside forces loom too large and threatening. This is the time to take up meditation or return to it if you have lapsed. Your goal is to connect with your deeper awareness, the place where self-control and security comes from.
The superficial part of everyone gets involved in a crisis by staying glued to the news, attaching itself to worst case scenarios, and dwelling on the terrible things other people are going through. None of this behavior puts you in control. It does just the opposite by fueling fear, uncertainty, and insecurity. Looking at updates once a day is more than enough. The rest of the time, remain centered in yourself and keep doing the sensible thing.
Life becomes more meaningful when you feel you have purpose, when you give of yourself in service, when you find resources of strength and resilience inside yourself, and when you discover who you really are.
How to be on the side of healing
Bad things happen to everyone. It is how you react that determines whether you come out healed or wounded. In all of us, the healing response is natural, innate, and powerful. More than the immune system is involved. Healing is a mind-body process. If you are sad, stressed, depressed, anxious, helpless, hopeless, panicky, or feel out of control, every cell in your body gets that message.
Therefore, do everything you can to send the opposite message. We’ve already mentioned meditation, which has a strong effect in restoring mind-body balance. But you also need to be vigilant on two other fronts: sleep and stress. Good, sound sleep maintains homeostasis and prevents a cascade of imbalances that can occur in hormones, for example. Stress is a powerful trigger for hormone imbalance, among other things. It has been linked to chronic inflammation, for example, which seems to be present in acute and chronic disease.
Besides doing all you can to sleep well and reduce immediate stresses, there is vagal breathing, which has become widely publicized in recent years. Centered on stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to heart, lungs, intestinal tract, and elsewhere. By breathing in to a count of four, holding your breath for a short pause, and breathing out to a count of four, you tell the vagus nerve that you are in a calm, balanced state. In response, it helps maintain mind-body balance.
You can do more to be on the side of healing by following the positive lifestyle choices you already know are good for you in terms of a healthy diet and avoiding or greatly minimizing alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. The good things you are doing contribute to boosting your immune response, or at the very least doing your best to keep it from being compromised. So far as anyone knows, the victims of COVID-19 are most likely to be immune-compromised. If you aren’t, your risks seem to be drastically lowered.
How to give your life more meaning
This is the most positive thing you can get out of the COVID-19 crisis and yet the least discussed. Life becomes more meaningful when you feel you have purpose, when you give of yourself in service, when you find resources of strength and resilience inside yourself, and when you discover who you really are.
No virus can deprive your life of meaning unless you allow it to. Conversely, a virus won’t add to the meaning of your life. Viruses have no motive except self-preservation and replication. All of us have the same instincts; they are built into our evolutionary past. But where human evolution excels is at the level of consciousness that goes beyond instinct, into the realms of empathy and self-awareness.
The expert medical advice that now surrounds us should be heeded, of course, but it falls short when it comes to meaningful change. Will you come out of this crisis feeling stronger, more resilient, and with more purpose? We’re not talking about putting yourself more at risk of getting sick, which is foolhardy. Instead, you can be strong for others. You can be the source of nurturing and optimism when others feel afraid and insecure. You can empathize with how someone else feels and lend your support. Where there are personal barriers of class, age, race, and income, you can be the one who lowers the barrier to reach out.
Yet ultimately the greatest meaning will not arrive until the world feels safer. Then the temptation will be to go back to the status quo, to return to normal by putting COVID-19 out of our minds. That would be a tragic loss of opportunity. During times of crisis, we naturally take time to appreciate what we have and place a greater priority on what is most important to us. The question is how to carry this on after the crisis of COVID-19 passes. The global mind must solve many problems, from climate change to over-population, refugees, and hostile nationalism. How the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic offers a clue to how every other problem will be confronted. Your life will be more meaningful if you contribute to meaningful solutions that reach far, far beyond the rampage of this virus. Everything, including being in control and being a healer, is wrapped up in that.